When God's Spirit brings about a movement of change, it often seems to begin in disparate places and diverse ways through people who don't know each other. For example, a remarkable number of broadly Evangelical organisations for cultural engagement seem to have sprung up in England in the 1980s – of which Thinking Faith Network (originally WYSOCS) is one. Now in our own time, I believe God is doing something important for Christian engagement in academia in Europe – starting with Christian doctoral students.
We'll have a report shortly on the special conference 'Catalysing Postgraduate Ministry in Europe' that took place two weeks ago. Today I want to share something about the context of this gathering, from my perspective. In order to focus on the organic growth of this work under God's providence, and for reasons of fairness and brevity, I will avoid naming specific people: this also allows more focus on important organisations.
We must begin with the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES), which plays an important role for postgrads and researchers around the world but has been largely absent on the UK postgrad scene. This is now being rectified through a promising joint UK and European postgraduate initiative which has been developing behind the scenes over the last 12 months – a topic for a future post. Meanwhile, a variety of initiatives have emerged over the last 15 years.
Perhaps the first and most important project is Transforming the Mind (TTM). Since 2003 this conference-cum-retreat has brought together postgrad students and postdocs – many of them international – for a weekend of fellowship in beautiful Dovedale, Derbyshire. Talks on Christian worldview and academic engagement combine with corporate worship and outdoor activities to provide a memorable and formative weekend - which has now been enjoyed by several hundred people in all.
Then in 2006, a Postgraduate Staff Worker was recruited by Friends International (FI) to help build community among Christian postgrads and university staff in the UK. In one sense this ministry was a strategic part of FI's focus on reaching international students, and it ended after a few years. But the work done by that staff worker (who added valuable impetus to TTM) had an important legacy for postgraduate ministry at large – and the associated website cpgrad.org.uk still exists.
Another annual event started in 2006. The Cambridge Scholars' Network was spun out from the European Leadership Forum (ELF) to help PhD students of Evangelical faith to grow in confidence and effectiveness as Christian witnesses in academia and beyond, and continues to take a small group each year for reflection and mentoring. The ELF, meanwhile, has facilitated important connections with groups in Europe and the USA, notably Texas-based Grad Resources. A spin-out from this ministry, International Partners PostGrad Initiative, brings to Europe its model of offering a crisis phoneline to postgrads 'of all faiths and none' – which can eventually feed into campus-based fellowship groups.
In 2007, Developing a Christian Mind (DCM) first brought together postgrads in Oxford. DCM "provides space for postgraduate students, postdocs and faculty to consider how they integrate their Christian faith and their academic life", and has since grown to two weekend conferences each year, in which over 1000 students and staff have so far participated.
Faith-in-Scholarship (FiSch) was started by Thinking Faith Network in 2011 to build "a network of fellowship and support for Christian postgrads". Inspired by existing and previous initiatives, FiSch initially employed a Postgraduate Support Worker to grow campus-based groups in the north of England, also running a series of conferences. FiSch has continued with its blog focusing on Christian perspectives on academia and academic research.
Most recently, Forming a Christian Mind (FACM) began in Cambridge in 2013 as a partnership involving Jubilee Centre, KLICE, Christian Heritage and Cambridge's Christian Graduate Society, among others. FACM holds day conferences to help postgrads and postdocs "to study excellently with a Christian ethos and worldview" and "to use what they study for cultural apologetics and persuasive evangelism", and it's exciting that last year UCCF joined the partnership as part of its emerging engagement with postgraduates nationally. I was personally encouraged to hear that a number of students from Loughborough University have attended FACM recently thanks to a Loughborough chaplain being inspired by TTM conferences.
I called this piece "the secret society of Christian postgrads" because, for all their success, there is as yet no joined-up national promotion of the above initiatives. While perhaps several hundred postgrads benefit from these opportunities each year, there are surely many times that number of Christian postgrads who don't hear about any of them - not to mention non-Christians who might attend an event out of curiosity and then encounter Jesus through it. That remains a great challenge – but one that I believe God is helping us to address. Keep reading this series for further news and encouragement!
Previous posts on initiatives mentioned in this article: